'Buck Rogers' Star Erin Gray: How I Turned Comic-Con (and Other Conventions) Into a Second Career
"I felt weird in the beginning about charging money [$30 per autograph]," she tells THR. "But then I realized actors are entertainers. And we tell stories."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Erin Gray begat many a fanboy dream with her portrayal of tough but sexy starfighter pilot Wilma Deering on NBC's 1979 sci-fi series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and since the early 1990s she's been regular on the convention autograph circuit. Gray eventually started a business booking actors for conventions and engagements, and today her Heroes for Hire reps around 150 clients, including Arrow star Stephen Amell, Torchwood star John Barrowman and fan favorite Bruce Campbell.
On how she discovered a second career after life on television:
"I came to a crossroads in my life. I was going through a divorce and bankruptcy, and had a child in private school. I went to a seminar at the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communication; [Batman actress] Julie Newmar and [Star Trek actress] BarBara Luna were there, and they started talking about conventions. I have never heard of anything like that, and when they told me about them, my reaction was, 'Oh nobody would remember me and the show. It was over 10 years ago.' This was about '91 or '92. A year later, BarBara called me and said, 'Erin, you're going to this place at this time, and you're going to call me after and thank me.'
"So I went. I saw there was a line around the building and I asked the promoter who that was for, and he said, 'You.' And I went 'What? Really?' So I spent the day reeling in stories of people's memories of watching the show. And I was like, 'Wow, who knew?'
"I felt weird in the beginning about charging money. But then I realized actors are entertainers. And we tell stories. I wanted to make sure that everyone who came to me got a story and was inspired by something in some way. And I listened to women come up to me and say, 'You're the reason why I became an Air Force pilot.' "
"I had no idea what impact I had. Going to these conventions made me realize that I influenced an entire generation of men to appreciate strong women and still find them sexy, and women to be police and military officers.
On how she started her convention-booking business:
"One day [her Buck Rogers co-star] Gil Gerard called and asked what I was doing, and I said I was going to Ohio to a sci-fi convention. And he was like, 'What is that about?' And when I told him, he was like, 'Can I go?'
"Then Gil played golf with Marc Singer, who was in V and Beastmaster, and Marc called me up and said he wanted to go too.
"Gil said, 'I'll pay you 10 percent,' and I was like, 'No, I'm your friend.' 'Oh I'll make you work for it.' And sure enough he did. (Laughs.) Booking his flights, his car service. And when Marc called, I said, 'OK, 10 percent.' But I wasn't thinking about it as a business at the time. It started as me helping out my friends go through this.
"After I had done enough shows, booking them, and feeling responsible for them — that was the mother in me — I realized that if the promoters wanted to grow their business, they needed to be able to call a WME or any other agency. And I knew how to do that, I could get that call answered.
On the autograph circuit:
"I will likely do only about four signings this year, but I'll appear at [a lot more conventions] in my capacity as an agent. I probably do 30 to 40 shows a year. It slows down in November, December and picks back up in March. But that's starting to change because it's becoming more international. For example, there are now shows in Brazil in December."
On paying for autographs:
"Prices are getting higher. I don't think they should. I think there's a point where it's not about money but about the relationships with the fans. I don't like seeing fans walk away feeling they've been fleeced out of their life savings. The good shows are where the fans get a lot of out of it and the actors get something out of it."
On agent snobbery:
"The actors that do this are mostly TV actors — and I don't know if that'll change. There's a snobbery from the film actors and their representatives. And there is a certain negative connotation of doing these things in certain agents' minds. I think it's wrong.
"There's a star of a new series, and I was talking to his agent and he said, 'I don't think he's going to be doing any of those.' And I said, 'He's agreed to play a famous comic book character and you're going to tell him to shun the fans? Are you nuts?' He's agreed to come into this comic book world. He needs to embrace it and the fans."